The American Family: An Endangered and Disappearing Species

By Lynn Wardle | June 16, 2015 | 12:37pm EDT
(AP Photo)

It is quite common to hear persons bemoaning the state of the family and of families in America. Is that just hype and rhetoric? Are American families really “disintegrating” today?  Sadly, a lot of evidence seems to indicate that traditional American families are an endangered and disappearing species.

Several statistical indicia suggest that traditional families (husband and wife with children) and family life are disappearing in the United States.  One major factor in the disintegration of families in America is the movement of young adults away from marriage. Nonmarital cohabitation and temporary “hooking up” have to some extent replaced marriage in some segments of the young adult population.

Citing a Pew Research Center report, The Deseret News notes that the U.S. marriage rate (percentage of persons married at age 18-32) has steadily dropped by generation from 65 percent of the Silent Generation (1960) to 48 percent of the Baby Boomer Generation (1980) to 36 percent of the Gen X Generation (1997), to just 26 percent of the Millennial Generation (2013). The decline in marriage rates in the USA has been steady and profound.  Currently fewer than half as many (only 40% as many) of young Americans 18-32 have married than young Americans of the same age cohort just three generations earlier (in the “Silent” generation).

Moreover, the marriage rate is “expected to drop even further next year.”  A Pew Research Center report notes that:

“After decades of declining marriage rates and changes in family structure, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an historic high. In 2012, one-in-five adults ages 25 and older (about 42 million people) had never been married, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data.  In 1960, only about one-in-ten adults (9%) in that age range had never been married.”

The percentage of American men and women ages 25 and older who have never been married has steadily risen from 1970, when it was under 10 percent for both men and women, to 23 percent of men and 17 percent of women, at present.  The share of never-married has more than doubled in about four decades.

Marriage has been devalued and lost credibility in recent years.  That Pew survey found that nearly as many American adults (46%) said that Society is just as well off if people have other priorities than marriage and children as do not make marriage and having children a priority, as said (50%) that Society is better off if marriage and children are given priority.

Many different factors have combined to influence the decline of marriage among young adults. “Adults are marrying later in life, and the shares of adults cohabiting and raising children outside of marriage have increased significantly. The median age at first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960.” Likewise, the widespread and immature misuse and abuse of no-fault divorce has weakened the current generation of young adults’ faith in marriage. 

There are significant age-differences in the disintegration of marriage.  Nearly the same percentage of couples who are under age 25 are living in unmarried partner households as are married couples, says U.S. Census Bureau data. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2010.  By contrast, the percentage of couples aged 35 and older who are living together in unmarried partner households is well below ten percent (10%), comprising between one-tenth and one-twentieth (or less) of the total couples in the four over-35-years-old decade-cohorts.  As couples get older, they value marriage more.  

The Pew Research Center also shows that the pool of unmarried men age 25-34 who have jobs has fallen steadily from 1960 (139 million) to 2012 (only 91 million). That may impact the number of marriages; women may have fewer responsible men to consider as marriage partners.  That clearly influences the rate and number of marriages as another report shows that 78% of all women report that a prospective partner having “a steady job” would be “’very important’ to them in choosing a spouse or partner.”

Likewise, the education gap between never-married men and women age 25 and over has widened, again leaving women with fewer responsible men to consider as marriage partners. 

The Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of unmarried women with a high school degree or less in 2012 was only 37 percent, while for men it was 47 percent.  A higher percentage of single women than single men have obtained some college education (30%-vs-28%), a bachelor’s degree (21%-vs-18%), and a post-graduate degree (11%-vs-7%).  For these women today there are fewer equally qualified potential husbands. 

As a result of easy no-fault divorce and its consequences, the percentage of never-married adults has dramatically increased.  The Pew Reseach Center predicts that one in four young adults Americans today may never marry.

The growth of same-sex marriage is further evidence of the marriage crisis in the U.S. today.  Same-sex marriage is legal in thirty-seven (37) of the fifty U.S. states.   In two-thirds of the American states where same-sex marriage is now permitted, the legalization of same-sex marriage did not occur by any legitimate democratic or legislative process, but by the order of federal courts.  

By contrast, voters voted to prohibit same-sex marriage by constitutional amendments in 31 U.S. states.  The federal courts have overturned many of those.

The U.S. is out of step with most of the nations of the world regarding same-sex marriage.  Currently, only seventeen nations (out of 193 sovereign nations) allow same-sex marriage – less than nine percent (only 8.8%) of the sovereign nations on earth.  Within the next two years two other nations, like Ireland just recently did, are likely to permit same-sex marriage (Finland, and Slovenia).  

By contrast, at least 47 nations (nearly one-quarter of all nations) have adopted constitutional language that appears to bar same-sex marriage.  For example: Article 24, Constitution of Japan: “Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife … .”    Likewise, Article 110, Constitution of Latvia: “The State shall protect and support marriage—a union between a man and a woman … .”

The issue of same-sex marriage is still open in most nations.  On April 28, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in four consolidated cases involving challenges to the marriage laws of those states which do not allow same-sex couples to marry.  Chief Justice John Roberts boiled the argument down to the fundamental issue: “You’re not seeking to join the institution,” he said.  “You’re seeking to change what the institution is.”  The Court is likely to announce what may be a revolutionary decision about same-sex marriage this month.

Another major manifestation of the disintegration of families in America is the explosion of nonmarital childbearing and child-rearing.  Those children are disadvantaged in very profound and long-lasting ways.  For example, according to the recent Brooklyn Declaration (21 May 2015): Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44 percent of children in mother-only families. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states, “Fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse.”  There is significantly more drug use among children who do not live with their mother and father.  Children of single-parent homes are more than twice as likely to commit suicide.  Among children in grades 7-12 who have lived with at least one biological parent, those who experienced the divorce, separation, or a nonunion birth reported lower grade point averages than those who have always lived with both biological parents.  71 percent of high school dropouts are fatherless; fatherless children have more trouble academically, scoring poorly on tests of reading, mathematics, and thinking skills; children from father-absent homes are more likely to be truant from school, more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to leave school at age 16, and less likely to attain academic and professional qualifications in adulthood. 

So, sadly, the family and families in America are disintegrating.  As judicial orders are decreed and legal policy changes are enacted that re-shape the American family, we should ask how those rulings and new policies will impact the disintegration of the family in America.

Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University.  He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.

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